Among the traitors to French Canada identified by Lionel Groulx were the young men, Radisson and Grosselliers among them, who in the seventeenth century did not hesitate “between the sedentary life of the pioneer and the seductive existence of the coureur de bois”.
Attracted by the land’s “vast prospect, its immensity, served by the most magnificent network of rivers”, the coureurs de bois dispersed throughout the continent in pursuit of a “life of easy profit, full of the unexpected and adventure, unrestrained liberty and too often libertinage”.
Radisson and Grosselliers were far from alone. Between 1668 and 1683, Groulx notes the population of New France had grown by only four thousand souls, a figure which he is unable to reconcile with the “marvellous fecundity of Canadien families favoured by a period of peace”. He finds some of the shortfall in the 500 to 800 men, who abandoned their farms and wives for a life of adventure.
For the colony, this figure, more than half its married men, was a near disaster and was strictly against the policy of Versailles. By venturing forth into the uncharted territory, the coureurs de bois destroyed the beaver population, upset the trading relationship between the French colonizers and the Cree and Iroquois populations, and took France into dangerous competition with other European colonizers. With the colony emerging from one war with the Iroquois and France already at war with Holland, the 1660s were a period of consolidation. Repeated letters from Versailles to Indendants of New France from made the position clear:
It is better to restrict ourselves to a space of earth which the colony will able to maintain than embrace too large a quantity, part of which we may one day we be obliged to abandon with some diminution of the His Majesty’s reputation and that of his crown.
Jean-Baptiste Colbért to Indentant Jean Talon, Count d’Orsainville, 5 April 1668.
Explore to this limit … it is better to occupy less territory and people entirely than expand without measure and have weak colonies at the mercy of the least accident.
Louis XIV to Indendant Jacques Dushesneau de la Doussinère et d’Ambault, 15 April 1676
Yet for the officials on the ground, this was a impossible policy. The dispersal of men was not as frivolous as Groulx suggests. Extortion by the French merchants who supplied the colony more or less forced farmers to supplement their incomes by trapping the beaver fur that was the colony’s most lucrative commodity. Even Groulx concedes that the primary reason for dispersal was economic and, hardly a proponent of the free market, quotes the economist Adam Smith that “Of all the measures compromising the progress of a colony, this without doubt is the most effective.” Unfortunately for the colony, Groulx observes, the situation continued throughout the history of New France with “the evil one can imagine”.
Even the most powerful men in colony suffered from its hardships, as Governor General Argenson made clear:
I foresee great difficulty in subsisting in this land, and it has been difficult for me to go far in my appointments. You cannot imagine the expense of living, beyond the difficulty of having it. The habitants are in an extreme poverty, insolvable by merchants; this poverty proceeds in part from the debasement of trade.
To address these problems,Versailles took direct control of colonial administration in 1660 and appointed Jean Talon as Indendant of the colony in 1665. Under Talon, new policies were instituted to make the colony agriculturally self-sufficient and less dependent on France. Seigneurs were encouraged to clear their property of trees on pain of losing their fief, immigration from France was increased, especially of skilled labour and women, marriage and childbearing was encouraged with measures which saw the fathers of unmarried boys and girls having to account for their delinquency while the fathers of the largest families were rewarded with hundreds of livres, provided their offspring did not join the church. It was forbidden on pain of death to linger in the forests for more than twenty four hours.
Such severe punishments were useless though. As Frontenac wrote in 1679, “The county is so open and so great is the difficulty of knowing when exactly they leave or when they return by secret correspondence with those with whom they live and even the principal merchants …”
When Talon set out from France he dreamed of extending French military reach “to Florida, New Sweden, New Holland and New England” with the hope that the French might be the first to reach Mexico. It was not to be, but by the time he left in 1672 New France was on a surer footing and the landscape of the St Lawrence Valley established. The problem of a scattering population remained, and the economic realities of despoilation and the feared wars with the Iroquois and Europeans meant that it was Frontenac who delivered the expansion Talon had dreamt of.
Consulted for this post
Lionel Groulx, La naissance d’une race. Montreal: Libraririe d’action canadienne-française, 1930.